Saturday, 9 April 2016

Laus Veneris (1873-5)

I'm lucky to live near Newcastle, where the Laing Art Gallery offers a small but excellent collection of paintings and other artworks. There are a few that tackle supernatural themes, or at least fall in the general horror/fantasy zone. I thought I'd post an occasional series about paintings I've enjoyed and do my bit for tourism, culture, dead artists etc.

Let's start with Edward Burne-Jones and Algernon Charles Swinburne - that's full-on Victorian, dude. Click to enlarge Laus Veneris.

The Heart of the Rose

According to the Victorian Web, the painting is based closely on Swinburne's poem, which is a typically sensuous re-telling of the legend of Tannhauser. The latter was a German knight who was lured by Venus into her underground lair (was she a super-villain?), where they enjoyed many years of purely physical pleasure. Lucky bastard. Eventually, being a goodly Christian knight, old Tanners felt a bit guilty and went to Rome to try and get absolved. The Pope told him that he could no more be forgiven his sins of the flesh than flowers could blossom from the papal staff (I kid you not). Needless to say, after Tannhauser wandered off in dejection the staff bloomed, but in those pre-internet days the knight didn't hear that God had, apparently, offered him forgiveness and was convinced he was damned.

Swinburne - who was distinctly anti-Christian - focuses on the sensual joys of dalliance in his poem and describes Venus thus:

Her little chambers drip with flower-like red,
Her girdles, and the chaplets of her head,
Her armlets and her anklets; with her feet
She tramples all that winepress of the dead.

Her gateways smoke with fume of flowers and fires,
With loves burnt out and unassuaged desires;
Between her lips the steam of them is sweet,
The languor in her ears of many lyres.

Her beds are full of perfume and sad sound,
Her doors are made with music, and barred round
With sighing and with laughter and with tears,
With tears whereby strong souls of men are bound.

The painting is big, but then so is the poem. Swinburne and Burne-Jones collaborated, to some extent, with the poet seeing a watercolour version of the picture. While not a favourite of mine, Laus Veneris is impressive, but not especially moving. It's full of fascinating detail and can be gazed at for one's edification, but I don't find it moving. Shallow me, I suppose.

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